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Learn / What Is End-Stage Alcoholism?

What Is End-Stage Alcoholism?

By 
Hannah Friedman
|
 September 4th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

End-stage alcoholism is the result of many years of alcohol addiction. Without treatment, alcohol abuse and alcoholism can cause severe physical and mental health problems. The longer you spend drinking heavily, the greater your risk of this condition. 

If you’re facing serious health problems because of your drinking, you probably need medical attention. You might also benefit from talk therapy or behavioral treatments to help you recover from addiction. Many of these treatments are available in residential rehab centers.

Diagnosis of End-Stage Alcoholism

Alcohol use disorder, or AUD, is one of the most common mental health issues1 in the U.S. This condition is a chronic, progressive disease. In some cases, it can even be fatal. But that doesn’t always happen right away. Before you can develop late-stage alcoholism, you’ll show much earlier signs of AUD.

Defining Alcohol Addiction

Addiction to alcohol goes beyond regular social drinking. People with AUD continue to drink in spite of alcohol’s negative impact on the rest of their lives. If you’re concerned you might have an alcohol dependency, you can get a diagnosis from an addiction expert. 

The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), lists 11 specific criteria for alcohol addiction.2 These symptoms apply to the early stages of addiction as well as late-stage alcoholism. They include, but aren’t limited to, the following:

  • Spending excessive time obtaining, using, and then recovering from alcohol
  • Repeated incidents where drinking interferes with your career, schooling, or family life
  • Continuing to drink even though you’re aware of the negative physical, emotional, and social effects of alcohol
  • Failed attempts to reduce or quit drinking
  • Withdrawal symptoms when you try to stop drinking

If you have at least 2 of these symptoms, or others listed in the DSM-5, you may have alcohol addiction. And if you’ve had them for many years, you may be approaching late-stage alcoholism. 

Reaching End-Stage Alcohol Addiction

While “end-stage alcoholism” is not an official diagnosis, it refers to a clear phase of this condition. People in this stage have fit the criteria for AUD for a long time. 

When you have late-stage alcohol addiction, your drinking causes increasingly severe problems. You’ll probably need ongoing medical care for worsening health issues. You might even show new neurological symptoms. 

By definition, end-stage alcoholism is life-threatening. While you can sometimes recover from this phase of addiction, you may require intensive treatment. 

How Long Does End-Stage Alcoholism Last Before Death?

The short answer is—it depends. End-stage alcoholism usually includes at least 1 serious health problem, like liver disease or neurological issues. Each of these conditions has a unique prognosis. Some are even curable. Your care team can give you more specific information about what to expect. If you’re wondering whether it’s time to get treatment, there are a few symptoms you can look for.


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What Are the Symptoms of End-Stage Alcoholism?

If drinking has been a big part of your life for a long time, any of these symptoms could indicate late-stage alcoholism:3

  • Yellowing skin (jaundice)
  • Swollen legs or feet
  • Fever
  • Shaking
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Digestive problems
  • Bruising easily
  • Lower alcohol tolerance
  • Dementia4
  • Low blood pressure
  • Poor muscle coordination
  • Tremor
  • Memory issues
  • Heart problems5
  • Trouble breathing

These symptoms could indicate a variety of serious health conditions. Some of them can also affect people who don’t drink. However, drinking can increase your risk of both severe and mild health issues. The CDC explains that alcohol abuse weakens your immune system,5 “increasing the chances of getting sick.”

What Are the Health Effects of End-Stage Alcoholism?

Long-term, chronic alcohol abuse can cause many severe health problems. While some of these issues can be managed or cured, continuing to drink will make them worse. If your alcohol addiction leads to any of these diagnoses, your care plan should include treatment for AUD.

Cirrhosis

The liver is responsible for filtering blood,6 removing toxins like alcohol and drugs. Excessive drinking puts a strain on this organ. Over time, alcohol abuse causes liver disease:7 

  • Stage 1: Fatty Liver Disease is the accumulation of fat in the liver.
  • Stage 2: Hepatitis includes inflammation of the liver cells. This disease is reversible with immediate treatment, including total abstinence from drinking. Without proper care, it can cause liver failure.
  • Stage 3: Cirrhosis is permanent scarring of the liver. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) refer to this condition as “the end-stage of liver disease.”


With cirrhosis, scar tissue takes the place of normal liver cells.8 As a result, the liver can’t function correctly. Cirrhosis causes digestive issues9 and skin problems, and can even affect your mental health.

Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

It can be hard to recognize Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome10 because it shares symptoms with other mental health issues. It often mimics early-onset dementia. But in fact, this condition is a combination of 2 different diagnoses:

  • Wernicke’s encephalopathy is a severe vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency that damages certain regions of the brain. This condition can cause confusion, low blood pressure, and hypothermia. It can also interfere with vision and muscle control.
  • Korsakoff syndrome also includes a B1 deficiency, but this disease almost always results from AUD. Its primary symptoms are amnesia and confusion. It can also cause tremors and vision problems.

With intensive medical care, Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome is somewhat treatable. However, experts at the NIH say that “improvement in memory function is slow and, usually, incomplete. Without treatment, these disorders can be disabling and life-threatening.”

Pancreatitis

Alcohol abuse can lead to acute or chronic pancreatitis.11 This is a necro-inflammatory disease, meaning that it irritates and then destroys pancreatic tissue. Data shows that AUD causes up to 25% of all cases of pancreatitis.

This condition causes gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and the inability to eat. It can also cause jaundice. There are no widely accepted medications for this disease. Instead, treatment involves managing your most severe symptoms. For example, if you’re unable to eat, you might receive nutrients through an IV. 

Acute pancreatitis can resolve with proper care. Continuing to drink, however, can cause repeat attacks. Over time these generally lead to chronic pancreatitis, which is a much more serious condition. 

Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy

Drinking has a complex effect on heart health. Some research shows that alcohol abuse raises your risk of heart problems12 including arrhythmia, heart attack, and congestive heart failure. Other studies report that drinking may protect against some common symptoms of heart disease.13 We need more data to understand the big picture. 

However, the data about alcoholic cardiomyopathy (ACM) is clear. This heart condition is always caused by alcohol abuse.14 In acute cases, drinking large amounts of alcohol inflames the heart tissue, which can cause arrhythmia. Chronic ACM can damage multiple major organs. This disease can mimic congestive heart failure, and so be difficult to diagnose. The primary treatment is abstinence from alcohol. 

Cancer

The CDC puts it very simply: “The less alcohol you drink, the lower your risk for cancer.”15 Drinking increases everyone’s risk of mouth, throat, liver, and colon cancer, and women’s risk of breast cancer. Some data suggests it might also increase the risk of prostate, stomach, and pancreatic cancer. 

Quitting alcohol lowers your cancer risk,16 but not immediately. Data shows that it can take years or even decades for your risk to return to what it was before. If you already have cancer, drinking might also interfere with treatment. 

What Are the Treatments for End-Stage Alcoholism?

Late-stage alcoholism looks a little different for everyone. You could have one or many of the diseases that often appear in this phase of AUD. And for every illness, different people have different symptoms. Your exact diagnosis and recovery goals will determine your treatment plan.

It’s important to be realistic about your prognosis. With patience and commitment, some people can fully recover. However, that’s not an option for everyone. Some of these health issues are irreversible. Talk to the experts at your center to learn about your specific options. Whatever conditions you’re facing, addiction recovery is almost certainly an important part of treatment. 

Medical Detox

If you have a physical dependence on alcohol, it’s essential to start recovery with medical detox. Without the right medical care, alcohol withdrawal can be fatal.17

Detox programs can last anywhere from a few days to a couple of weeks. You’ll work with a team of doctors, nurses, and therapists during treatment. They may prescribe non-addictive medications to help with the physical and emotional symptoms of withdrawal. Many centers offer 24/7 care to help you navigate this difficult time.

Withdrawal is just the first step of addiction recovery. Most programs require patients to plan for longer-term treatment before they begin detox. Usually, that means signing up for a residential rehab program.

Residential Rehab

To recover from late-stage alcohol addiction, you’ll need a rehab program that offers medical care. Most people in this phase need to heal from both emotional and physical symptoms. In the right treatment center, you can work toward multiple goals at the same time.

Residential treatment usually lasts at least a few weeks to a month, but it can take longer. If you need more structured support after rehab, you’ll have several options for aftercare. For example, you could attend an intensive outpatient program (IOP) or move to a sober living home. 

When drinking is such a large part of your routine, it can take time to build a sober life you love. Initially, rehab might be your response to a medical emergency. But while you’re there, you’ll also get to practice new coping skills. During and after treatment, those skills will help you navigate a more sustainable lifestyle. 

Ongoing Medical Care

If you have a chronic medical condition due to alcohol abuse—like cirrhosis—you may need long-term medical treatment. This could include medications, regular doctor visits, or other medical interventions. 

For many of these conditions, doctors recommend permanent sobriety. Timothy Morgan, MD, explains that “Cessation of alcohol is necessary18 to treat alcoholic liver disease.” And even with total abstinence, you might experience some chronic symptoms. Before you leave rehab, talk to your care team and make a plan for your ongoing treatment.

Support Groups

In any stage of addiction and recovery, social support can help you heal from AUD.19 This is especially important for people with end-stage alcoholism. After many years of alcohol abuse, your addiction can take a toll on your relationships. Treatment might help you reconnect with loved ones or get to know new people. 

Some clients achieve this in family therapy. You can also use the 12-Step approach to addiction recovery. Many rehabs use this framework in all aspects of treatment, including talk therapy and other activities. You can also find free AA Meetings all over the world, and even online. If you find the 12 Steps helpful during treatment, you can keep going to meetings after you leave rehab.

Find Effective Treatment for Alcoholism

End-stage alcohol addiction can impact every part of your life. If you’re dealing with a combination of mental health problems, physical symptoms, and relationship issues, it can be hard to conceive of recovery. That’s where rehab comes in. 


Connect with a rehab for alcoholism to start planning a better future.


Frequently Asked Questions About End-Stage Alcoholism

What are the health effects of end-stage alcoholism?

Prolonged alcohol abuse in end-stage alcoholism can lead to severe health issues, including cirrhosis (liver scarring), Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (brain disorder), pancreatitis (pancreas inflammation), alcoholic cardiomyopathy (heart damage), cancer, and more. Late-stage alcoholism requires comprehensive medical care, detox, rehab, and ongoing support to manage these conditions and recover from addiction.

What are the treatment options for end-stage alcoholism?

Treatment for end-stage alcoholism can involve various approaches. Medical detox, essential for addressing physical dependence, is often the first step. Residential rehab programs provide comprehensive care for physical and emotional symptoms. Ongoing medical attention, including medications and doctor visits, is crucial for chronic conditions. Support groups, such as 12-Step programs, aid in the recovery journey, especially in rebuilding relationships strained by prolonged alcohol abuse. Connecting with a rehab center is essential for effective treatment planning and building a better future.


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